The energy of the future: renewables in the Caribbean | Green

Year-round sunshine, endless breezes, gushing rivers: most Caribbean countries have ample natural resources to harness renewable energy. So why is the region so dependent on fossil fuels? Erline Andrews investigates

Wind turbines on the coast of Aruba contribute to a goal of one hundred per cent renewable energy 
by 2020. Photo by iStock.com/hairballusaYear-round sunshine makes the Caribbean ideal for harnessing solar energy. Photo by Diyana Dimitroda/Shutterstock.com

Nelson Island — a tiny fragment of land less than one mile off the northwest coast of Trinidad — is a focal point of the island’s history. Indian immigrants, arriving as indentured labourers between 1866 and 1917, were processed at the island before being taken to the mainland.

Today, Nelson Island, a heritage site, has another important role. It uses Trinidad and Tobago’s biggest off-grid solar-power system: fifteen kilowatts of solar energy power four buildings and external lights around the island.

The system is about to get an upgrade, and the company SM Solar Wind Energy Systems has been recruited to do the job. It’s the company’s first major project since the business was founded seven years ago, which is an indication of how limited solar energy use remains in T&T, despite assurances from governments over the years that more will be done to move the country away from oil and gas and towards environment-friendly renewable energy.

The Caribbean region is seen as a good place to develop renewable energy, because of the abundance of options available here and because of the success of its neighbours in Latin America. Costa Rica powered its electricity grid for months last year and the year before solely on renewable energy.

“If I was in it for the money, I would have given up a long time ago,” says SM managing director Ignacio Smith, a project manager who explains that he founded the company after reading about the environment situation in T&T. “I got really scared. We had already overshot our biocapacity by one hundred per cent.” Smith says he started SM because he wanted to “ignite change.”

Since then, some promising steps have been taken towards renewable energy use in the private and public sectors. The privately owned Savannah East building opened recently in Port of Spain. It’s the first certified green building in T&T, and uses the largest solar-power system in the country. The Canada-based firm that designed it is also helping the National Insurance Board get green certification for its new headquarters.

The state has also spearheaded projects here and there, like the installation of solar-powered security lights at thirteen community centres and solar-power projects at twenty-one secondary schools. In 2011, the government put in place a package of fiscal incentives to boost renewable energy businesses, including import duty exemptions on the equipment and parts to produce solar water heaters, the removal of VAT on solar water heaters, solar PV panels, and wind turbines, and a 150 per cent tax allowance for companies that hire renewable energy service providers. And the government pledged in 2015 that ten per cent of the country’s electricity would be generated from renewable energy by 2021, but momentum seems to have stalled.

Legislative and regulatory changes still have to be made to facilitate the integration of renewable energy into the national electricity grid, and a national energy policy is yet to be completed. According to a 2015 report from the United States Department of Energy, none of the energy generated in T&T’s electricity grid came from renewable sources.

 

T&T, which produces oil and gas and therefore doesn’t face the problems associated with high fuel prices that plague other countries in the region, is still too wedded to the use of fossil fuel energy, says Smith. “The reason is, you have very big industrial groups pushing for that agenda,” he explains. “At the end of the day, it is really about the private sector’s agenda. It is not about the people of Trinidad and Tobago.”

But elsewhere in the region, the outlook for renewable energy is rosier. Last year, Jamaica generated more than ten per cent of its electricity from renewable sources, including wind, hydropower, and solar, according to the Jamaica Information Service. The country has pledged to reach thirty per cent renewable energy generation by 2030.

A US Department of Energy survey summarises renewable energy developments in the rest of the Caribbean:

• Aruba has set a goal of one hundred per cent renewable energy by 2020. The island got 15.4 per cent of its energy from renewable sources in 2015.

• Guadeloupe generates more than seventeen per cent of its electricity from a wide variety of renewable sources: wind, hydropower, geothermal, biomass, and solar.

• Belize has set a goal of ninety-five per cent renewable energy by 2030. In 2015, sixty-five per cent of the energy generated in Belize came from renewable sources, mainly hydropower and biomass.

• Five more territories the department surveyed had renewable energy numbers of between ten and twenty per cent: the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Curaçao, the US Virgin Islands, and San Andrés and Providencia (a department of Colombia in the western Caribbean Sea). And three had numbers above twenty per cent: St Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, and Bonaire.

But in eleven other countries or territories the department surveyed — Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, the British Virgin Islands, Grenada, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, Turks and Caicos, and Puerto Rico — renewable energy generation was at zero or close to it. The department describes most of the countries and territories in the region as “almost entirely” or “highly dependent on imported fossil fuels, leaving [them] vulnerable to global oil price fluctuations that directly impact the cost of electricity.”

“From a commercial perspective we don’t see it really snowballing yet,” says Ralph Birkhoff, a Canadian project developer and consultant currently based in Anguilla, of renewable energy. “It’s unfortunate that governments aren’t moving faster and accelerating their conversion into renewable energy,” he adds. “There’s a lot of interested technology firms and providers, and there’s a lot of private investment capital available, primarily from the US, UK, and Canada, and potentially from sources in Asia as well.”

The 2015 Caricom report Caribbean Sustainable Energy Roadmap and Strategy outlined some of the reasons for the slow pace. “Many member states have taken the lead in setting targets, creating responsible agencies, and developing domestic policy mechanisms to support an increase in renewable energy and energy efficiency . . . Despite these important steps, however, sustainable energy development across the region continues to be limited by policy and data gaps, administrative ineffectiveness, and often inefficient and uncoordinated implementation efforts.”

Observers believe the lagging countries will get their act together for one simple reason: they have no choice. David Cooke, a clean-energy consultant who writes a regular column for the Jamaica Observer, believes the move to renewable energy is inevitable and will happen one way or the other. “Solar PV is now the lowest-cost option in over sixty countries,” he says. “Very rapidly it’s going to be more than half of the world where solar PV is going to be lowest cost. Wind is just marginally behind but not as widely available,” he adds. “They’re beating out coal, natural gas, and anything else. You have large swaths of the world rapidly developing renewables.”

And people are demanding the cheaper option. “They are chomping at the bit,” Cooke says of Jamaicans. “The man in his little two-bedroom house is wanting it badly. They’re sending me emails: ‘How can I do this? How can I do that?’”

Meanwhile, conditions remain favorable in the region for renewable energy. “They’re sitting on a goldmine,” says Birkhoff of Caribbean countries. “We have sun. We have wind. We have geothermal. We have oceans that create energy.

“The Caribbean is so fortunate. It has all these resources that most countries would die for,” he continues. “And it’s sitting there shining on you every day, and we still are not moving quick enough to harness these resources.”